Nicholas Bourbaki and Serge Lang

Replied to Scientific Fiction – The Bourbaki Mystery by Sue Vazakas (The Sheridan Libraries Blog)

In the 1930s, a French mathematician began writing journal articles and books. His name was Nicolas Bourbaki. He didn’t exist.

Bourbaki was and is actually a group of brilliant and influential mathematicians, mostly French but not all, whose membership changes but whose collective purpose remains the same: to write about mathematical topics they deem important. Between 1939 and 1967 “he” wrote a series of influential books about these selected topics, collectively called Elements of Mathematics.

A mysterious, mostly anonymous group of writers publishing momentous things under a single name is just really cool. But don’t try to read any of his stuff unless you are an expert mathematician.

Instead, read a wonderful story by novelist and award-winning chemist Carl Djerassi, called The Bourbaki Gambit. What do you think happens when a group of scientists, being discriminated against for various reasons, team up and use the “Bourbaki” approach to try to get their latest discovery taken seriously?

There’s an old mathematicians’ joke that goes like this:

Q: When did Nicholas Bourbaki quit writing books about mathematics?

A: When (t)he(y) realized that Serge Lang was only one person!

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